By Marzena Zukowska & Siobhan McGuirk
September 11th, 2020
“Look over there behind me, that’s a tornado. Yes, a twister in Los Angeles. It’s one of many tornadoes that are destroying our city.”
In 2004, The Day After Tomorrow transformed climate change from a niche political issue into a global public conversation.
The film’s vision of “abrupt global cooling”, despite the questionable science behind it, generated ten times more news coverage
than even the most high-profile contemporary climate research
publications – and grossed $555 million in global box office. Two years
later, Al Gore’s double Oscar-winner An Inconvenient Truth seemed to cement global warming as a pressing issue ripe for entertainment industry attention.
Fifteen years on, as hurricanes, tsunamis and
record-breaking heat waves increasingly make newspaper headlines, we
still look to these two films as landmark media
on climate change. That is to say, the most pressing issue of our time
continues to be explored primarily through fact-driven documentaries –
few of which reach audiences beyond the festival circuit – or bombastic
dystopian fiction – which tends to exaggerate already alarming science
to the point of incredulity and paralysis.
As storytellers continue to grapple with the challenge of
both accurately and compellingly portraying our climate emergency,
innovative approaches are finding success in tying climate change to
other social issues – and in the world of gaming, making solutions
interactive and possible in real-time.
The challenge: capturing glacial pace disaster
Scientists and policy-makers for decades framed climate
change as a slow-moving catastrophe, or “future-oriented problem”,
making it hard to sustain public interest. Over the same period, climate change deniers successfully planted seeds of doubt
over findings linking human-made carbon emissions to global warming.
Despite overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue, large sections
of the public remain dubious.
In response, climate storytellers have understandably
often chosen non-fiction formats to stress the realities of climate
change. As Gore’s film title emphasises, a core purpose of
climate-focused media-making is establishing the “truth” – generally
through archive and newsreel footage, statistics, infographics, shots of
nature and expert talking heads.
Documentaries dominate environmental film festivals and “best climate change movie” listings. They rarely break into the mainstream, however, or overcome perceptions that the genre is preaching, dull, or both – a view echoed by environmentalist Naomi Klein in her own climate documentary This Changes Everything. The genre’s impact on audience behaviour is also debatable – and no more assured than that of blockbuster fiction.
George Marshall argues that our brains are “wired to ignore” the climate change narratives that rule most documentaries: complex science, uncertain outcomes
and calls for personal sacrifice with intangible rewards. While
daunting in magnitude, the threat of climate change is “exceptionally
ambiguous”, explains Marshall, with no obvious “external enemy with an intention to cause harm.”
The makers of TV mini-series Years of Living Dangerously (2014) echo Marshall’s view. They presented A-list celebrities as “concerned citizens” in an effort to make climate change feel less distant to potentially skeptical viewers. Executive producer Joel Bach
explained: “it’s meant to really look like a scripted narrative…
hopefully [viewers] get sucked in and before they know it they’re
watching a documentary.”
The presence of movie stars does not guarantee engaging content, however, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour (2007) and Before the Flood (2016) attest. In fact, climate media anchored by celebrities might be counterproductive, as they often promote elite solutions and white-saviour narratives that obscure grassroots activists’ voices – including of the people most impacted by climate change.
Notable documentaries buck these trends by adopting more relatable – and more engaging – approaches. Mossville: When Great Trees Fall(2019) weaves together local stories of personal struggle with a historical exploration of environmental racism and corporate power with international reach. Kenyan-Norwegian co-production Thank You For the Rain (2017)
touches on related themes through a very different aesthetic. Shot over
five years in video-diary style by climate activist, rural farmer and
co-director Kilisu Musya, the film asks subtle, searching questions of the mainstream environmental movement.
In the world of factual television, nature films have also
become increasingly explicit about the global impacts of climate
change. The mesmerising early-2000s BBC series The Blue Planet (2001) and Planet Earth (2006) portrayed nature as pristine and wildlife undisturbed by human contact. This is in keeping with genre trends of avoiding “haunting” stories that could alienate audiences and downplaying the impact of humans on the environment.
Notably, natural history broadcasting veteran and voice of the BBC Planet series Sir David Attenborough doubted the threat of global warming until 2004. His sequels – including Our Planet (2019) andBlue Planet II (2017) –explicitly address issues like overfishing and plastic pollution. The latter seized the public imagination so much it provoked policy action on microplastics. Attenborough’s latest film, Climate Change – The Facts(2019), has been heralded as a turning point for the BBC – though its title suggests a return to a now-familiar documentary style, rather than innovations in form.
The challenge: leveraging fiction – without predicting dystopia
Within two decades of scientists discovering a weakening of the Earth’s ozone layer, decisive action was taken to repair it. Sheldon Ungar argues that environmental catastrophe was averted by instilling the issue, despite its scientific complexity, as a “hot crisis”
in a public imagination already attuned to cinematic metaphors. “The
idea of rays penetrating a damaged ‘shield’ meshes nicely with abiding
and resonant cultural motifs, including ‘Hollywood affinities’”, Ungar
explains. “That the ozone threat can be linked with Darth Vader means
that it is encompassed in common sense understandings that are deeply
ingrained and widely shared.”
Commercialization of ultraviolet radiation threat – new
brands of sunscreen, UV ray sunglasses, and “safe sun” advertising –
solidified ozone leakage as a public health emergency. But entertainment
media also played a major role in establishing the task of tackling the
issue as “all but unavoidable”.
In the late 1970s, the imagined dangers of ozone depletion fuelled B-movie thrillers like Day of the Animals(1977) and The Billion Dollar Threat(1979). By the early 1990s, the consequences of global warming was providing backdrops for dystopian adventuresincluding Highlander II (1991) and Waterworld (1995), two mega-budget box-office flops that nonetheless reflected the zeitgeist – though the latter case may have been ahead of the curve.
Meanwhile, children watched and played as Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990-1996) battled CFC-toting villains, while Ferngully: The Last Rainforest(1992)
cast pollution and deforestation as terrifying animated antagonists.
Silly, spectacular, and scientifically spurious, these stories still
helped to ensure the terms “ozone”, “CFCs” and “global warming” lingered
“in the air”, complementing news reports and factual programming.
Climate change has tended to lack such ubiquity and immediacy, although climate fiction, or cli-fi,
is resurgent – particularly in the disaster / dystopia genres.
Historically, natural disaster movies have worked as analogies for other
social upheavals – from Great Depression woes to atomic age anxieties to pre-Millennium “Y2K” fears. Since The Day After Tomorrow, however, human-induced climate change has increasingly been cast as the literal threat.
In the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still,
for example, environmental destruction replaces nuclear warfare as the
existential threat humanity poses to itself. British film The Age of Stupid(2009) cleverly blurs the lines between dystopian sci-fi and documentary to make a similar point on a tiny budget. In Take Shelter (2011), a sand-mining company employee has foreboding nightmares of oily black rain and deadly storms that engulf his small Ohio town.
Temporally, these films depict worlds on the brink of disaster and employ the “ignored expert” trope
– be it scientist, alien, archivist, or psychic everyman – whose
warnings of impending destruction are fatally ignored. As similar scenes
unfold in real life,
these films may be seen as cautionary tales. Many cli-fi movies
ultimately remain cynical about humanity’s ability to respond to the
identified danger, however. Such pessimism may be counterproductive if
viewers sense that urgent calls to action are always doomed to fail.
Similarly, when the apocalyptic damage wrought by climate
change is presented in the same cinematic language as countless other
disaster movies, it risks joining the ranks of other spectacular threats
– from earthquakes, to comets, to alien invasions – understood by audiences as either unlikely, inescapably devastating, or both.
Post-apocalyptic cli-fi can offer an even bleaker view of humanity. In Snowpiercer(2013), after an experiment fails to prevent a new ice age, earth’s last survivors reside in a high-speed train organised by class hierarchies and propelled by extreme exploitation. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015),
a revival of the 1980s Australian franchise, weaves a commentary on
gender into its desert wasteland survival narrative. Here, toxic masculinity and climate change go hand in hand. Fast Color (2018), in which black women protagonists save the earth from an 8-year drought, has been similarly praised for subverting paradigms of male power.
In their narrative and aesthetic constructions, these films all largely avoid the pitfall of presenting women – particularly black and indigenous women – as mother earths; spiritual caretakers who are closer to nature. They are important counterpoints to disaster movie tropes: the aforem entioned “ignored experts” are all, predictably, male.
The gender neutral protagonists of WALL-E(2008)
present a different message. Filled with gentle indictments of
hyper-consumption and our over-reliance on automated technologies, WALL-E
champions selflessness and unity across difference – while calling on
people to look away from their screens and appreciate the world around
them. Despite its makers’ protests to the contrary, the film is an environmentalist critique
of corporate power and the pursuit of profits over people – wrapped up
in Pixar’s trademark, family-friendly animated style. Earth is a
wasteland, but WALL-E retains faith in humanity – a message all too rare in climate fiction.
A solution? Gaming climate catastrophe
A meteor is on a collision course with earth. You have 30
days to stop it. Can you do it? This is not the plot of a Hollywood
blockbuster, but the premise of Eco, a collaborative open-world
video game in which each player’s survival matters. Destroying an
ecosystem, or putting the economy into overdrive, could cause a “server-wide perma-death” and end the game for the entire team.
One of the top-reviewed games of 2018, Eco is only the latest independent video game to tackle the issue of climate change. Blue Planet II spinoff Beyond Blue simulates deep-sea diving to “educate players on how to interact with the ocean in a way that enriches it”. In The Climate Trail, an update of the iconic 1971 educational game The Oregon Trail,players
must survive a 1,000 mile trek across a United States torn apart by
tornadoes, heat waves, and food shortages. Cities including Flint,
Michigan feature prominently, nodding to real-world socio-economic
inequalities and failing water infrastructure that has been exacerbated by climate catastrophe.
Climate change is not new territory for the gaming
industry, although the theme has most often been relegated to the
category of “serious” educational games – with world-building games proving an exception. Following the success of SimCity,
numerous 1990s strategy games gave players “godlike” control over
nature and presented environmental destruction as obstacles to
allowed players to evolve a planetary ecosystem over billions of years,
mitigating melting ice caps, rising temperatures, and looming natural
disasters along the way. In Civilization I (1991), which launched a multimillion dollar franchise,
players hand to manage factory pollution specifically to avoid the
threat of global warming. Climate change all but disappeared from Civilization sequels, and video games more generally, until recently.
Now, says game developer Karn Bianco,
more gaming companies are interested in climate themes, “from simple,
pick-up-and-play arcade romps to deep, richly detailed simulations.” The Sims 4 Eco Lifestyle
expansion pack, for example, lets players produce their own
electricity, launch eco-activist campaigns, and “upcycle” furniture and
clothing. Rather than focus on macro climate change issues, the game
leans into changing individual habits. In 2018, Minecraft introduced climate change mechanics, including carbon dioxide emissions, into its open world setting – host to 91 million monthly players. Both Anno 2070 and Frost Punk,
two popular post-apocalyptic city-building simulators, feature melting
ice caps, volcanic winters, and refugee crises specifically as outcomes
of climate change.
Civilization has also returned to its roots. The franchise’s newest expansion pack,Civilization VI: Gathering Storm,
released in 2019, sought to counterbalance its genre’s formulaic
quadfecta of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” by challenging
players to keep their carbon emissions down. In “4X” games, preventing
climate change however continues to mainly serve Eurocentric notions of empire-building. The Civilization franchise, for example, implies resource extraction – responsible for more than half of our world’s carbon emissions – is inevitable and necessary in the march towards progress. Gathering Storm presents a significant shift in focus:
as the game progresses into the “future era”, players contend with
global diplomacy, climate treaties, and new carbon-neutral technologies
to find success.
Other innovative scenarios are emerging beyond the strategy genre. Acclaimed action/adventure game Horizon Dawn Zero,
while fantastical and combat-driven, slowly reveals climate change as
the historical antagonist that destroyed our heroine’s world.
Well-designed and complex, the game offers the type of layered
storytelling more often associated with great novels. Other indie games shift the storyteller’s gaze: in 3D adventure Endling,
players see the world through the eyes of the last fox on earth.
Similar themes of extinction, albeit less fantastical, motivate Bee Simulator, which establishes and leverages player’s empathy to raise awareness of how climate change is devastating global bee colonies.
Author and artist Sheree Renée Thomas
argues that we need more imaginative stories to tackle climate change.
“To survive and thrive”, she explains, “we will need to have the
fortitude and the commitment to imagine community-based solutions as
part of our shared future.” Because climate change disproportionately
impacts already marginalised people, and “climate apartheid”
– not apocalypse – is its most likely consequence, we must acknowledge
that “community” extends far beyond our own neighbourhoods and national
borders. Solutions must include all of us.
At its crux, those are the challenges facing climate
storytellers and media-makers: How to avoid a doomsday outlook that can
make the issue feel insurmountable while emphasising the spectacular
threat posed by human-induced climate change? How to compel action when
the threat feels distant – when strangers far away, not only our own
communities, are in danger? How to convince people that, against the
fictional world of individual heroes, only collective action can avert
We have to look beyond documentary and dystopia as go-to
models of storytelling on climate change – even while recognising
impactful innovations within those genres. Climate change is not going
away. Before we know it, new climate realities will provide unavoidable
backdrops to every aspect of our lives – and will encroach into every
storytelling genre, from low-budget horror to soap operas and sitcoms.
We must not wait for a new norm to imagine better climate change
Marzena Zukowska is a writer, community organiser and research consultant with OKRE. Follow her on Twitter: @MarzenaZukowska.
Siobhan McGuirk is a writer and editor of Red Pepper magazine, and an academic at Goldsmiths University. Follow her on Twitter: @s_mcguirk.
Siobhan McGuirk – In addition to her academic
publications addressing gender and sexuality, migration, and social
justice movements, McGuirk is an award-winning filmmaker, curator and
editor for Red Pepper magazine. Her writing has appeared in Teen Vogue, Rewire News, and Australian Options.
She received her Doctorate in Anthropology from American University in
2016 and holds a Masters in Visual Anthropology from the University of
Manchester. She is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Anthropology at
Goldsmiths, University of London.